China has a great chance to accelerate its path to global leadership
Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, talks to experts during his visit to Tsinghua University School of Medicine in Beijing, capital of China, March 2, 2020.
Yan Yan | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed more clearly than ever the nature and relentlessness of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s ambition to place itself at the center of global power and influence.
What was once an opaque policy, Speak clearly by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, of “hide your strength, bide your time,has now morphed into President Xi Jinping’s transparent, if still undeclared, approach to “seize the Covid-19 moment” – before it shut down.
The virus initially appeared to be a dramatic setback for China, given its role as the source and epicenter of the pathogen in January and February. With China likely to emerge as the first major global economy to end lockdowns and return to growth, Covid-19 now offers a once-in-a-century chance to accelerate geopolitical change in Beijing’s favor until in 2020 and beyond.
That said, China’s leaders are moving at a pace that reveals not only their ambitions but also their apprehensions that this historic moment may close as quickly as it opened.
Military doctors salute at Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, April 15, 2020.
Xinhua News Agency
“Party leaders believe they have a narrow window of strategic opportunity to strengthen their power and revise the international order in their favour,” writes Lt. Gen. (Retired) HR McMaster, former security adviser of President Donald Trump, in his just-published book “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.”
He sees the party leadership moving at lightning speed to “co-opt, coerce and conceal” at home and abroad “before China’s economy deteriorates, before the population ages, before Other countries only realize that the party is pursuing national revival at their expense, and before unforeseen events such as the coronavirus pandemic expose” their vulnerabilities.
At the same time, Beijing grapples with the new burdens of global leadership: pleas for help from debtor countries, developing countries for accountability, Covid-19 victims for reparations and global human rights activists. man for less repression and more transparency.
Here are just four fronts in this unfolding drama:
The Financial Times reported On Friday, Beijing “received a wave of requests for debt relief from crisis-hit countries included in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).”
These will increase as the strength of the virus descends on emerging markets. Of the 138 countries that have joined the BRI, the vast majority are developing nations, many with dodgy credit ratings that are now getting worse.
What is positive is that China sign on a G20 agreement last month to freeze bilateral loan repayments for the poorest countries until the end of the year. Yet Chinese leaders are far from condoning principles or interests.
As July’s crucial G20 meeting in Jeddah approaches, more is to be expected of China as a country that morally and financially should be at the center of global fiscal stimulus and debt relief efforts.
This week’s market movement story that US officials are considering punitive measures against China over Covid-19 is likely only the beginning of demands that Beijing should adhere to the Spiderman Warning that “with great power comes great responsibility”.
The idea may seem far-fetched — even counterproductive to U.S. interests — that the White House and Congress could act to remove China’s sovereign immunity so that Beijing can be sued in U.S. courts for damages.
Whatever happens on this front, Beijing can expect increased calls from the United States and elsewhere to further investigate the origins of and response to Covid-19, if only to avoid a repetition.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the US State Department
Win McNamee | Getty Images
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week launched an attack on China for “classic communist disinformationon Covid-19 should be read alongside the drumbeat of detailed and increased reporting on what Wired Magazine – in its own rich investigative report – called China “coronavirus concealment.”
This week’s Euro-Chinese controversy was sparked by a to run away to Politico Europe over an apparent decision by the European External Action Service, under pressure from Beijing, to remove references from a report to China’s “global disinformation campaign to deflect blame from the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image”.
Josep Borrell, the de facto European foreign minister, insisted: “We did not bow to anyone”, but then added: “It is clear and obvious that China expressed its concerns when it learned that the document had been leaked… I’m not going to reveal how it was done because we don’t explain that kind of diplomacy.”
No step is more important than Europe in tracking China’s diplomatic offensive in providing Covid-19 assistance, in tracking its growing investments in Europe, and in gauging Europe’s growing discomfort with Beijing’s intimidation and technological incursions.
That said, Europeans are weighing new doubts about Chinese intentions amid growing perceptions of the United States’ diminishing European engagement.
With the world distracted by Covid-19, look at China scheduled release later this year of “Chinese Standards 2035.” Beijing’s intention is nothing less than to set the global standards for emerging technologies over the coming decades.
“China Standards 2035 should focus on setting standards in emerging industries”, write Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic in TechCrunch. “High-end manufacturing, unmanned vehicles, additive manufacturing, new materials, industrial internet, cybersecurity, new energy, green industry. … After gaining a foothold in targeted physical spheres, Beijing is ready to set its rules.”
What this approach highlights is how China’s approach to global leadership differs from that of the United States. While Washington generally tries to lead others from the top of the international community, China’s aspiration is to “get closer to the center of the world stage”, in President Xi’s words.
What has been most evident in recent weeks is that China is acting to shape the Covid-19 period and its aftermath with considerable focus and planning. At the same time, the US response to China has been inconsistent, lacking long-term strategy and close coordination with allies.
A future column will deal with what democratic countries could do to face this challenge together. The first step, however, is to understand China’s recognition of this historic opportunity and what it is doing to seize the moment.
Frederick Kempe is a bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of America’s most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, associate editor and senior editor of the European edition of the journal. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and ssubscribe here at Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the top stories and trends of the past week.
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